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The Tower of Psychobabble

Why are we so ambivalent about naming the games people play?

I haven’t written an article in a few weeks because I’ve been concentrating on finishing books too long delayed. I got one out already, my reissued 2003 title: “Negotiate With Yourself and Win! Doubt Management for People Who Can Hear Themselves Think.”

I’ll have three new books out by June, one I’m tentatively calling “Mind Readers Dictionary: Terms For Shit We All Do In Thought, Conversation and Debate.”

See, about 20 years ago I started collecting terms that identify common psychological gestures (technically called "speech acts") that, mix and match, we see people use all day at work, and all night at home and on sitcoms. Where I’ve found a common move that didn’t have a name I gave it a name. So far I’ve coined about 500.

At first I thought my terms might catch on. A few have among friends and slightly wider circles, but by now I don’t expect they will. Maybe my names just aren’t that good or useful. Still, it’s not just mine that don’t catch on. Psychological jargon in general is resisted. There’s a cultural wariness about it. We dismiss it as psychobabble.

Every specialization from medicine to music, law to business, church to chess has its rich jargon, and yet our jargon for everyday psychology is unusually impoverished, so impoverished that I could easily coin 500 terms, for moves we’d all recognize.

We’re all psychologists; we have to be or we’d never survive socially. We all track the moves people make, but we describe these moves in roundabout ways, the way people describe things they’ve never seen before, even though they see these same moves over and over.

I employ my 500 terms fluently, but mostly using my inside voice. They’re my construction kit for modeling sequences of psychological gestures I notice in myself and others. In this I’m doing nothing more complicated than what a baseball fan does when he details an inning’s ins and outs.

We have some accepted psychobabble. For example, we talk about “the pot calling the kettle black” a variation on what Freud called “projection,” what Christ implies with “he who is without sin let him cast the first stone,” or what children mean when they say “I know you are but what am I?

I suspect “pot calling the kettle black” is one of the main reasons we’re compelled to limit our psychobabble. The problem with psychobabble is that pots can use it to call kettles black. Psychobabble is a double-edged sword. It can be used to cut through the BS or to cut down the person who is cutting through the BS.

Take the pop psych version of the clinical diagnosis “narcissist.” We can use it insightfully to tame our own egotistical behavior or to identify and distance ourself from others who prove too full of themselves.

But a term like narcissist roaming wild on the tips of our tongues is as likely to be abused as used insightfully. It gives us an easy way to sound like a high-minded and neutral psychologist while cutting each other down. Self-absorbed people (many of us—after all, who isn’t a little bit narcissistic?) can label anyone who doesn’t show them the respect they expect a “narcissist.” The number of supposedly narcissistic ex-partners in America alone exceeds the world’s true population of true narcissists.

My early motto for my coining campaign was “to name it is to tame it.” If you have a name for a psychological gesture, you can tame those gestures. If you find yourself unusually irritated with your spouse after you started smoking again, you can say “Oh, maybe I’m projecting,” and then cut it out. Likewise you might tame your partner, by suggesting that maybe he or she is projecting, when he or she gets grouchy after making a mistake. We often don’t forgive people for things we’ve just done, so it’s nice to have a term that tames the tendency.

Still, eventually I came to see “to name it is to tame it” as itself double-edged. It also means “to name it is to quell it, to shut it down.” A cheating husband accuses his wife of cheating on him, and she can shed light on the situation by suggesting that he might be projecting. But, given the double-edge, a cheating husband whose wife asks, “are you cheating?” might shut her up by saying “Ah-ha! You must be projecting.”

The problem with psychobabble goes way back to our earliest catalogue of psychological moves, developed by the sophists who taught the art of rhetoric, a collection of influential moves you could make in debate. Their rhetoric made for a cacophony of debate, everyone blowing rhetorical smoke out their asses so effectively that you couldn’t discern the flame of truth. It made Socrates and Plato so uncomfortable they were inspired to develop logic, their dream of a psychobabble-free math-like method for moving toward absolute truth.

Logic however has become its own kind of psychobabble. Take the fallacies, for example the “ad hominem fallacy” or argument against a person’s character, as in “he must be wrong because he’s a jerk.”

Unleashed in popular discourse, it has become the fastest high-minded way to cut down any critic who uses pejoratives against you. Just say “You must be wrong because you made an ad hominem fallacy,” which translates as “you must be wrong because you’re a jerk for calling me a jerk.”

I know you are but what am I? Pots calling kettles black.

Our ambivalence about psychobabble even predates the sophists and Socrates. The Tower of Babel is one of the oldest stories in the Old Testament, like Eve and the apple, another fall from grace myth in which God limits our power and range in response to our hubris.

In the Tower of Babel story, we’re told that originally all people spoke a common tongue. They got together to build a tower from which to gain a God’s eye perspective on things. God, worried that “nothing will be withheld from them which they purpose to do." scatters the people into separate tribes speaking separate languages and unable to speak coherently to each other. One man’s “you’re a jerk” was another man’s “I know you are but what am I?” Incoherent to each other the people were unable to build their high tower and gain God’s omniscience.

And so our state today, never able to work together to climb to God’s high perch because we undercut each other’s efforts to climb.

“Narcissist” and “projecting” are negative terms, terms for what you shouldn’t do. Psychobabble of course also generates positive terms for what you should do. A tribe comes up with some formula for climbing to omniscience and coins terms for the do’s and don’t of climbing. In religions, for example you should be devout, not a heretic, a true believer not a sinner. The terms are shorthand for encouraging good and taming bad behavior but soon become tools for cutting down anyone who disagrees with you.

A frustrated sub-tribe splinters off to develop a counter-formula with its own psychobabble do’s and don’ts. If being faithful was the formula for religious virtue, the reactionary counter-formula is to be open-minded. But soon open-minded becomes a way to bully people who disagree with you. Just say “I guess you’re just not open-minded” as a way to shut them up.

The factions square off each urgently working to undermine the other (think the 30 years war between Catholics and Protestants) with church towers toppled quite literally. The same in politics, and the culture wars in general. One man’s fervid yes is another man’s fervid no, the ammunition in their battles the leveling of psychobabble at each other.

So why would I write a whole new dictionary of psychobabble terms? Because I’ve tried to develop a psychobabble that captures the gestures of such psychobabble battles, a terminology that is deliberately designed to sound more informal, less high-minded than the terms that can be so easily abused by people who want to play neutral armchair psychologist to bully their fellow man, a lexicon that sheds light on the double-edged sword of psychobabble itself.